Noruz and the Feasts of Iranian New Year
Long after most of us are done with the holiday season, in Iran they're busy celebrating the New Year, Persian-style. Around the spring equinox, March 20 this year, marks Noruz (also spelled Norooz or Now-Ruz) and the time to cleanse body, mind, and property of last year's dust. The celebrations start on the last Wednesday of the Persian year (in this case March 17) and commence with Charshanbeh Suri, the traditional jumping through a fire for purification. But after the cleansing leap, the focus, as in so many cultures, is on the feast.
"It's mostly about hanging out and eating food," says Louisa Shafia, chef and author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscience Life. "At a Persian get-together, the main event is eating."
During Charshanbeh Suri, they sit down to eat ash-e-reshteh, a soup made with noodles, beans such as chickpeas, kidney, fava, or navy, and an array of herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and dill. The feasts of Noruz last hours, but before it begins, Shafia says, they first must set a grand table, complete with a mirror, symbolizing looking back towards the previous year; a goldfish for luck; wheat grass for growth; dyed eggs for fertility, and "seven things that start with 's.'" The 's' follows the Farsi language, and these seven things can be any combination of: seeb (apples), seer (garlic), sabze (greens), serque (vinegar), sib (apple), sonbol (blossom flowers like a hyacinth), somagh (sumac), seke (coins), and a sweet paste made from germinated wheat called samanou.
Despite the traditions, what Shafia really looks forward to is eating fish kebabs dashed with tangy dry sumac, the sweet, hard candy called gaz, and, if she can find it, lavash bread, which is long and flat, similar to a large tortilla. Her favorite is when it comes sprinkled with black caraway or nigella seed. Her favorite meal though, which she can't say without smiling, is the herb kuku, a simple rice dish with cilantro, dill, parsley, and mint mixed in.
To find spices, ingredients, and other Iranian foodstuff, Shafia goes to Kalustyan's Spices and Sweets, which she calls "the Mecca of all things Middle Eastern." Another good source is Sahadi's Specialty and Fine Foods. Though if you want to get a handle on Noruz dishes and spices before you try your hand in the kitchen, give Pars Grill House and Bar or Persepolis a go.
In her book, Shafia has a simple, and supermarket friendly, recipe for ash-e-reshteh, which she shares here:
Ash-e-reshteh From Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louisa Shafia
Serves 6 to 8
½ cup chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover ¼ kidney beans, soaked overnight in water to cover ½ cup dried fava beans, soaked overnight in water to cover, or 1½ cups frozen lima beans 3 yellow onions 7 tablespoons olive oil 5 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon ground turmeric ¼ cup dried lentils 14 cups vegetable or chicken stock salt 1 large handful fresh mint leaves, torn into pieces 6 ounces thin egg noodles or linguine, broken into thirds 1 bunch leafy greens, stemmed, and coarsely chopped ¼ cup fresh dill leaves, minced ½ cup fresh cilantro, minced ½ cup fresh parsley, minced 2 cups plain yogurt
Dice 1 onion. Heat a large pot over medium-high heat and add 4 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion and saute until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse the chickpeas, kidney beans, and fava beans, and add them to the onion along with 4 of the minced cloves of garlic, the turmeric, and lentils. Saute for 1 minute, then add the stock and bring to a boil. Boil the beans, covered for 1 hour. Tilt the lid so the pot is partially covered and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1½ hours. Season with salt.
Slice the remaining onions into thin half moons. Heat saute pan over high heat and add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions and fry, stirring frequently, until the onions are brown and caramelized. Add the remaining garlic and the mint and saute for 1 minute. Season with salt and set aside.
Add the noodles to the soup and cook until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. When the noodles are almost done, add the leafy greens and the fresh herbs and cook for 2 minutes.
Serve with a large dollop of yogurt and a few tablespoons of the sauteed onion mixture.
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